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Hacking sexual pleasure: a hard, slippery problem

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NSFW Everyone wants more pleasure with less effort, so humans have used mechanical augmentation for ages: prehistoric dildos and porn, Kama Sutra treatises, lubes, piercings, and lately vibrators and Viagra. But since sex is really all about electrical nerve impulses, shouldn't electronics and signal processing be able to enhance pleasure even further? Can't we geeks contribute technology to our favorite activity?

Unfortunately, technical types often ask "What can we do with our cool tech?", rather than "How and why does sex feel good?" For example, recent meetings on sex technology (SXSW and Sex Hacks) show a burgeoning interest in hooking up vibrators to iPods, microphones, cellphones, and video games. New inputs, but the same old transducers. So how about starting with the basics of sex instead?

Not-so-basic physiology

Sex is complicated. Desire, engorgement, lubrication. So many sensations: teasing, urgency, incipient climax, contraction, affectionate pair-bonding, sleepiness. And half a dozen hormones or neurotransmitters - testosterone, dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, prolactin - both create and respond to sensations and expectations in myriad positive and negative feedback loops. Several different nerve pathways are involved: in the woman, the majority of nerves are in the clitoral head (not the vagina), while the "G-spot" is really the backside of the clitoris. The sciatic nerve is nearby, and an unrelated non-spinal nerve (the vagus) seems involved; at least one woman with a severed spinal cord was still able to orgasm.

Vascular dynamics and anatomy aside, science hasn't been much help. Recent MRI images of sex really just show the shape of the interlocking genitals, nothing more. The only way to "measure" sensation is to ask people what it feels like. Even the basics aren't so basic; in both men and women, orgasmic sensation can sometimes occur without contractions or ejaculation, and vice versa. Such exceptions matter, because "hacking" cares more about how a system can work than how it was designed to work. In this context, having fun and "getting off" aren't necessarily the same thing.

Why can't a woman be more like a man?

For most men, it's enough to have porn, lubrication and a towel; further gadgets are optional. Men comprise most of the hackers and tinkerers, while the sex-toy users are mostly women (at least to judge by the gadgets for sale). But women respond very differently from men.

Take Viagra, for example. Viagra creates the same engorgement in women as it does in men, but in general women don't enjoy the sensation; drug-maker Pfizer is reluctantly abandoning its years-long research on "female Viagra" for want of success, despite a huge potential market.

Women's disconnect between crotch and head can be even greater: recent research shows women can be consciously turned off ("Ick!") at the very same time they're physically turned on. Almost no one - let alone geeky tinkerers - really understands how pleasure works, much less how to hack it. Even the basic physical interface from signal to skin hasn't improved in ages.

How does skin work? Tactile sensations are transmitted by thousands of strain- , pressure- , and vibration-sensitive neurons layered throughout the skin and erogenous tissue: different combinations of neural responses - i.e. different distributions and synchrony of signals - convey sensations of pressure, heat, stroking, slippery, rough, and so on. Only a handful of the "right" neural patterns correspond to real-world stimuli, just like only certain pixel patterns represent real images on a TV.

So even if we could somehow trigger all the neurons individually, it would still be nearly impossible to simulate a realistic physical sensation. Injecting raw electricity through the skin - "electro-stim" - can fire neurons but can't fool them into creating the right patterns, any more than flashbulbs or white-noise can simulate a TV picture. So raw electricity will always feel, well, electrical. (There is one possible exception: a product, called Slightest Touch, claims to transmit imperceptible levels of electricity through pleasure centers of the pelvis, creating pleasure without any uncomfortable "electrical" buzz. A great idea, if it works).

The necessarily weird feelings of electro-stim are usually used to produce novelty or pain (as a recent demo suggests) rather than pleasure. A much better way to transform electricity into touch is the vibrator, which was invented about a century ago (see the Antique Vibrator Museum), and hasn't changed too much since: typically, a weighted electric motor spins and shakes, just like in a cellphone. This is a compact and efficient way to convert electricity into motion, but the shaking is still just shaking. At best one can vary the speed of the motor, say by cleverly processing an audio signal to become drive-current.

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